A native Parisienne, Denise Khaitman Schorr studied at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. When the Germans invaded Paris, her family fled to central France and hid in a friend's barn. In 1941, 4'11"-tall Denise joined the Resistance. In September 1944, just after the liberation of Paris, she met her future husband, Stanley, a US serviceman from Worcester, MA. Arriving in the US in 1946, the couple lived first in Worcester and later in Fitchburg, where Stanley headed the Jewish Community Center. A close friend of Julia Child, she helped found the Culinary Guild of New England and in 1981 authored the cookbook My French Kitchen. In the 1950s, the Schorrs adopted five children, including two sets of twins, from the Jewish orphanage in Boston.
It is with great affection and many shared experiences that I remember the very big and full life of tiny Denise Schorr. I got to know Denise as a cooking colleague, in what amounts to the last third of her long life. For this reason, I will share memories and impressions from the last thirty years, which I know doesn't begin to touch upon the most important parts of her life: her family and her formative years. Because Denise was such a unique character, I hope some of these memories will capture her essence and serve as a tribute to her passion for living.
One of Denise's greatest character traits was her expression of her values. She navigated sensibly through these crazy modern times, always discerning the worthiness of material things and ingredients. She navigated the what's, when's, and how's of quality going down-hill, and in contrast, what was of good value. Nothing would make her madder than a rip-off. She could look like a fashion plate, but beware: With her deep voice and French accent she would pack a punch with her favorite English idioms: "Kiddo, that's a rip-off, that's not the real McCoy!" I don't think she was capable of saying the word "fake" in a sentence without being upset!
She operated through the world on a deeply expressive and emotional plane. She was emotionally available and she had an edge you wouldn't want to cross. Her feelings informed her actions, reactions, and responses to the world before her. Yet, at the same time she was very private. Her traits of clear values, being disciplined and of strong character most surely were shaped from early days with the French resistance. This probably contributed to her most wonderful way of modulating from thrift to luxury, and the full range of moderation in between. She was a true sensualist who relished the great pleasures of the table: how to savor a small aperitif, a luxurious treat, a single cigarette, or a thimble full of special calvados from the cellar.
Denise was exacting. She knew that cooking took time, and she accepted it. She never bragged of short cuts or by-passing techniques. She had an engaged intensity which disallowed her from doing anything half way. She excelled at her craft, by doing it right. She shared with her students this legacy, as well as through her cookbook' My French Kitchen.
A cook's style and personality shows through to their preparations :About 15 years ago she had me for lunch, featuring a side spinach salad. From that day on, it was locked in my taste memory as the definitive Spinach salad. It had her signature on it: robust with garlic, liberal with Dijon mustard, more salt and pepper and red wine vinegar than I'd have imagined… and a load of spinach, triply washed, torn into small bite sized pieces and dried in linen towels. There was a strength of character and purity to this simple preparation, done right, which strangely mirrored Denise herself. It became a standard, which I couldn't move beyond!
Many of the stories of her young life in France give a glimpse into the shaping forces of her strong character, enormous empathy and compassion for others. This shaped her life as a giver. Victor Hugo said "it is by suffering that human beings become angels." She cast a wide net, knowing that people come first. I feel so comforted in knowing that she can always communicate to us through her book. … To live beyond in the hearts you leave behind is not to die. You'll be with us forever, Denise.